Shadow minister warns of SEN 'race to bottom' and BBC expert calls for accessibility for all new technology
The potential gains held out to learners with special educational needs in the Government's Green Paper could be dashed by failure to tighten legislation, warned shadow schools and families minister Sharon Hodgson MP at the annual meeting of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) last week.
And the BBC’s disability correspondent Peter White amplified that warning, saying that benefits gained by people with special needs were always vulnerable without strong safeguards. It was now time, he added, for fresh legislation to ensure that all new technologies are designed with SEN and inclusion in mind.
Both were guest speakers at the BATA event at the Oriental Club in London’s West End. While Sharon Hodgson acknowledged to cross-party working behind the Green Paper – echoed by BATA patron and LibDem spokesperson Baroness Walmsley who chaired the event – she also highlighted the need to firmly tack down the resulting legislation. “Both myself and John [Bercow], or Mr Speaker as I must call him now, talked about the necessity to ensure that we end – as far as is possible – the postcode lottery, patchwork quilt, or whatever you want to call it, that we have now when it comes to provision of assistance for those with additional needs.
They had been talking about SLCNs (Speech, Language and Communication Needs), she said, where there’s a problem when about whether the NHS or local authority provide those services. “But to varying degrees, the same is true of any kind of provision you may wish to name, and one of my big concerns with the Children and Families Bill is that this will be exacerbated further unless the concept of local offers is toughened up,” she added.
‘A race to the bottom benefits no one’
“I cannot foresee a situation whereby the system as currently being put forward will encourage local authorities to improve the services they provide to the kind of children your products assist. In these times of austerity if, as a minister, you say to councils and to commissioning consortia (as they will be at the time), ‘You need to list everything that a child with additional needs might expect to receive in your area, but we’re not going to say what the bare minimum for that is,” what’s going to happen?
“The same thing that happens now to a lesser degree – councils make their offers as bad as, or worse than, their neighbours and others around the country, to avoid families moving to their area to get better provision for their child, or to encourage families with high needs children to go elsewhere. A race to the bottom benefits nobody.
And she had a solution: “I think that local offers can be good for parents, they need underpinning. “They need underpinning by a set of minimum requirements that all children and their families should be able to expect from their local authority, no matter what part of the country they live in, or whether they have the means or the knowledge to move elsewhere for better provision.
“They need underpinning by accountability mechanisms, so that parents can actually get what the local offer in their area says they should get. And they also need underpinning in terms of how they are put together. The involvement of young people and their families needs to be a core part of that process – both for the family’s sake and for the local authority’s. After all, if they put together a local offer that their residents are broadly happy with, then they’re most likely going to spend far less time assessing for EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans), or fighting tribunal cases.
“I was very pleased to see that the Education Select Committee agreed with all of these points, and has made very specific recommendations to the Department for Education that they redraft the clauses along these lines – I will certainly be pushing for them to do so.
The shadow minister shared data about improvements in the achievements of students with disabilities over recent years to demonstrate that gains were being made. But these needed to continue, she said. And the only reason we now have access to that data is because she had pushed through Westminster a private member's bill ensuring that is collected by the relevant agencies.
Nasen's 'Every Teacher' campaign pointing in the right direction
Sharon Hodgson also felt that the role and performance of teachers was crucial to the new 'Green Paper' landscape. In an average classroom one in five children will have “some form of SEN or disability. That’s why it it is crucial for all teachers to be able to spot identify children’s needs and adjust their teaching accordingly, she said. It was why Nasen’s “Every Teacher” campaign is so important.
“The common thread here, between the Bercow Report, my own review and Nasen’s campaign, is that every single teacher is a teacher of SEN pupils, but not every teacher is given the skills to allow them to be a good teacher of SEN pupils.
“If we expect our teachers to be good teachers for every child in their class – which we should and do – then we need to give them the skills and knowledge they need to be able to live up to that expectation.”
“We are therefore currently looking at how we can ensure that every new teacher undertakes a minimum module on SEN as part of their initial training, which will cover identifying and adapting teaching for high-incidence conditions, and managing challenging behaviour in the classroom.
We’re also looking at saying to schools that they need to give due prominence to SEND in their continuous professional development strategies. One INSET day a year could be given over to promoting good practice on inclusive teaching, sharing experience, and refreshing knowledge on SEND.”
Legislation now needed to ensure inclusion for all new technology
Technology would, she emphasised, play an important role in this teaching. And technology was also integral to the presentation from Peter White that managed to be simultaneously entertaining andt profound. He brought personal insights and humour to a convincing argument for legislation to ensure that new technologies are truly inclusive.
Peter White has been blind from birth and he shared with his audience his understanding of the natural conservatism of those who are reluctant to widen their expertise with technology when their current expertise has served them so well. Like his own with Braille. He explained how that was a block to him embracing the potential of computer technology because of a potent mix of confidence in existing technology and an understandable fear of the uncertainty of change.
Not embracing technology severely limited his ability to collaborate with colleagues with now simple things like working together on scripts. It didn’t take much to also recognise that, for Peter, adopting ICT meant giving up certain strengths and advantages he could exploit – like being granted an incredible level of professional trust. And a licence to be a maverick!
He also dropped in some hilarious examples of his brushes with the limited perceptions of others. Like the commuter, frustrated by being held up by Peter’s dependence on his stick as he got off a train. Why on earth didn’t he have a guide dog, he asked. “Oh my god,” quipped Peter, "I must have left him on the train.”
There was no question about the life-changing opportunities brought about by technology, he said, recalling a world where, as a child, the most he could hope for was to read just one book in any series created for children (around 4 per cent of the books printed). Technology fed his love of literature with a new landscape, and it opened his social life too.
However, he warned that, despite the tremendous gains achieved by peole with disabilities, many could be reversed by adverse circumstances unless there were sufficient safeguards. He referred to the current instability behind the dramatic crop of high street redundancies, and recalled the days when certain kinds of jobs were often taken up by people with disabilities, for example blind people as switchboard operators, only for them to subsequently disappear.
"This is a new world, a new opportunity," he said, "and I think we have to say that this offers so much, and is being so far woven into the centre of our society, that it has to be a right. And accessibility techniques, I think, have to be included in the development of equipment from the start. In fairness this is happening to quite a large extent."
'It's not just about choice; it's actually about being a part of life'
He said that companies like Apple are incorporating speech recognition into their products, and keystrokes can be used instead of mouse actions. "But sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. This can't be left to chance any more because the pace is hotting up, it's galloping. And the fact that this should be built into the machines rather than being added as an add-on is being taken on board."
There were cost implications he said, but that should not hold up progress. "I do think that this has to happen," he concluded, " and I do think that you [BATA members] have the major role. Just as we don't allow people to make unsafe, or dangerous or toxic products so people mustn't be allowed to market inaccessible equipment because it's not just about choice; it's actually about being a part of life. We have to seriously think about how to do that. It's a no-brainer that we could be in danger of excluding people, as good as the progress we have made is."
As a résumé of the journey so far, and its achievements, the presentations by the BATA speakers hit the spot, but their pointers for the way forward held essential messages for any policy maker or politician. And they also underlined the significance of the contribution from the UK's creators of assistive technology for education and their crucial role in bringing truly inclusive design to mainstream products.
'Teachers moved to the frontline of SEN support as local authorities sidelined'
Martin Littler “Star speakers like broadcaster Peter White and Sharon Hodgson MP bring together key people from education technology, key disability charities and celebrity users of AT and give a focus and a voice to the disabled user.
“This has never been needed more. NASEN’s “Every Teacher” campaign highlights the fact that the onus for identifying and accommodating pupils with special needs and disabilities (SEND) is now dumped squarely on the teacher while every vestige of support from local authorities and regional or nations centres of AT expertise have been stripped away. The fact that 85 per cent of university students needing SEND support and DSA have not had their needs identified in the previous 11 years of schooling speaks for itself. Mainstream schools are already a desert for special technology and the creeping granularity of academy and free school provision can only make things worse.
“On the positive side we can see parliamentarians like Baroness Walmsley, John Bercow and Sharon Hodgson working together to promote the interests of those with special needs. The mutual respect is clearly extended to Edward Timpson MP the responsible Tory minister too. BATA is clearly getting the ear of people who can lead change”.
Sharon Hodgson and Peter White were guest speakers at the annual general meeting of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) at the Oriental Club, London
More coverage from Sal McKeown and Bryan Plumb